by Mel Valentin
Long unavailable on DVD in the United States except as an import or on VHS, "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" ("Shao Lin san shi liu fang"), a classic, even seminal martial arts film produced by the Shaw Brothers in 1978 with Gordon Liu ("Kill Bill") in the lead role, finally gets a Region 1-DVD release, thanks the Weinstein Companyís new label dedicated to Asian action and martial arts films, Dragon Dynasty. Also released as "The Master Killer" or "Shaolin Master Killer," "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" was released in the United States to drive-ins and the second- or third-run movie theaters that inspired future filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (among others). Notable primarily for its martial arts choreography and extended training sequence, "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" is still worth checking out, regardless of whether youíre a fan of the genre, interested in film genre history, or just looking for some martial arts action on a night home.The 36th Chamber of Shaolin set, or more likely expanded then solidified the template for martial arts films that focus primarily on the training of an impetuous, hotheaded, undisciplined character. Over the course of training to become a skilled martial arts fighter, the character will gain strength, agility, and endurance along with his martial arts skills. Heíll also learn a system of values that, at least for Western moviegoers and video watchers, will border on the simplistic, but which usually emphasizes an ethos that resorts to violence only in self-defense and only as a last resort. But the genre, not to mention, moviegoers and video watchers, demands a high action quotient and thatís something that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin delivers, but not in the way weíve come to expect from martial arts films.
"Classic Shaw Brothers' martial arts given the Dragon Dynasty treatment."
Loosely based on a historical character, San Te (Gordon Liu, billed as Chia Hui Liu), is, despite his status as the son of a relatively affluent seafood shop owner, impetuous, hotheaded, and undisciplined. As a college student, he studies ethics, but quickly discovers that his studies havenít prepared him for the real world. San Te takes his political cues from his teacher, Mr. Ho, a political activist who openly opposes the occupation of China (specifically Canton) by the Manchu Dynasty and its collaborators. Inflamed by his teacherís sermons, San Te volunteers to be a courier for the rebels, using his fatherís business as cover. That decision, however, ends up costing him everything, his fatherís business, his parents, his friends, his instructor, and his school. San Te flees and seeks sanctuary at the Shaolin Temple and the monks who study Buddhism and martial arts there.
San Te, of course, is less interested in studying Buddhism than he is in learning martial arts and taking that knowledge to the outside world, where he hopes to instruct his countrymen in how to defend themselves against their Manchu oppressors. The monks, however, refuse to become involved in world affairs, but they still take San Te on as a pupil. It takes San Te a year of rigorous study of Buddhism, as well has heavy physical labor, before heís finally allowed to become a martial arts student. Over the course of weeks, months, and years, San Te masters every torturous challenge. First, he must learn to balance on a log. Second, San Te must ring a giant bell repeatedly with a weighted gong. Third, he must learn to follow a moving flame without moving his head (easier said than done). Fourth, he must carry two buckets of water up a steep incline with his arms outstretched. Each challenge prepares him physically and mentally for the ďrealĒ training: learning to fight with his hands, feet, and various weapons, including a three-section staff.
From there, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin follows the path most traveled in the genre: a newly emboldened San Te must leave the sanctuary of the Shaolin Temple, return home, and seek retribution against the Manchu general who ordered the murder of his family and friends. None of that should be surprising to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre. What is surprisingly, however, is that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin focuses primarily on San Teís training, bookended by his youthful experiences and then, several years later, by his return home. The training scenes at the Shaolin Temple take up most of the screen time. While some moviegoers or video watchers might consider that a problem, it isn't, at least not in the context of the quality martial arts we get to see during San Te's training at the Shaolin Temple.
Luckily, the training and fight scenes in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin are as dynamic and well choreographed as youíre going to get from the late 1970s with no wirework. Liuís adopted older brother and martial arts instructor, Lau Kar-leung (credited as Chia-Liang Liu), directed The 36th Chamber of Shaolin with a shooting style typical of martials arts films from the 1970s, relying heavily on zoom ins and zoom outs to emphasize story points or action beats. On the plus side, Kar-leung covered all the major and minor action scenes cleanly, allowing moviegoers and video watchersthe opportunity to see as much of the action and, therefore, the skills and talents of his cast, as possible. And while casting Kar-leung's adopted brother in the lead role may have seemed like nepotism at the time, luckily Liu (who resembled late actor Yul Brynner) had the martial arts training and experience to essay the lead role.Not surprisingly, "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" went on to influence countless Hong Kong martial arts films, especially the oft-imitated training sequences that test and challenge the heroís physical and mental toughness. It also spawned two semi-sequels, 'Return to the 36th Chamber," with Liu playing a different character and "Disciples of the 36th Chamber," with Liu back as San Te. On its own, however, "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" is still worth watching, both as genre history and as pure entertainment, made all the more so by the occasionally confusing subtitles or odd word choices (e.g., San Te is called San Ta here) that strongly suggests the Weinstein Company rushed the release of "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin."
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originally posted: 09/04/07 14:12:28